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Bryanesque

Bryanesque

Only a month after writing about the release of Bryan Ferry’s 1974 Albert Hall concert, last night I found myself back in practically the exact same seat I occupied 46 years ago, watching Ferry, midway through the first of three concerts, step into a cone of light to deliver “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with just the guitars of Tom Vanstiphout (acoustic) and Chris Spedding (almost subliminal Telecaster) for company.

I thought about a recent conversation with my friend Caroline Boucher (once of Disc & Music Echo), who remarked on the extra-special quality of Ferry’s singing on his 2007 album of Dylan covers, Dylanesque. He’d recorded “Don’t Think Twice” five years earlier, on Frantic, accompanied by Colin Good’s piano. Last night’s version was very different: almost unbearably tender in execution and spirit, it formed a pair with the Dylan cover that followed it, “Make You Feel My Love” (which was on Dylanesque). When he launched the familiar roar of “Hard Rain” half an hour later, it was tempting to think of Ferry as the Bard of Hibbing’s most interesting interpreter.

“Don’t Think Twice” was the point at which the concert pivoted away from its opening sequence of a dozen non-hits into the drive towards the encores. Highlights of the first half for me were the unstoppable groove of “You Can Dance” (from Olympia), the slinkier seduction of “Your Painted Smile” (from Mamouna), and the glorious shifts from minor-key verse into the deceptively sunny Europop chorus of “Hiroshima” (from Frantic).

The second half was the formula beloved of Ferry’s wider audience: “Avalon” and “Dance Away”, “Love Is the Drug” and “Street Life”, “Hard Rain” and “The ‘In’ Crowd”, “Virginia Plain” — still a stunning piece of pop art, worthy of his mentor, Richard Hamilton — and “Editions of You”, all delivered with style and energy. Throughout, Ferry received exemplary support from his dozen musicians, notably Neil Jason on bass guitar, Luke Bullen on drums and Jorja Chalmers — Louise Brooks dressed as Catwoman — on various saxophones. If this was a last night out before the coronavirus shuts everything down, then it wasn’t a bad way to finish.

Revisiting Eric Burdon

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The memory of hearing Eric Burdon sing “House of the Rising Sun” with the Animals at the Odeon, Nottingham one summer night in 1964 — a week or two before it was released as a single — is as clear as yesterday. In some ways it was the precursor of a new kind of rock music. But to Burdon, as he explains in a new biographical documentary shown on BBC4 this weekend, it meant something different. When Alan Price, the group’s organist, took credit for the words (traditional) and the arrangement (borrowed by Bob Dylan from Dave Van Ronk), it damaged the singer’s faith in music as a collective endeavour: all for one and one for all.

Luckily, although the animosity towards Price is still burning fiercely more than half a century later, it didn’t cause Burdon to end his career. As Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt testify in the programme, post-Price Animals hits like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” were nothing short of inspirational to the next generation. But as the decades went by, there was always a sense that Burdon, one of the great English R&B voices of the ’60s, never quite recaptured the same level of fulfilment.

The hour-long Eric Burdon: Rock and Roll Animal, directed by Hannes Rossacher, is a co-production by the BBC with ZDF and Arte. There are interesting passages on his apprenticeship at the Club A Go Go in Newcastle, his relationship with Jimi Hendrix, his time in San Francisco and his collaboration with War — who dumped him, he claims, because he was the white guy in the band (there was actually another, the harmonica-player Lee Oskar). There’s quite a lot of stuff about his 50-odd years of living in California, and we see him cruising through the desert in some ’70s gas-guzzler or other.

We leave him, weathered but unbowed, with his new American band — new in 2018, anyway, when the film was made — preparing to record an album. He sings “Across the Borderline”, the great song written in 1981 by Ry Cooder with Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt for the soundtrack of Tony Richardson’s The Border, a film about immigrants. Originally sung by Freddie Fender, it subsequently found its way into the repertoires of Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Willie Nelson. It suits Eric Burdon just fine.

* The screen-grab is from Eric Burdon: Rock and Roll Animal, which can be watched on BBC iPlayer until the end of March.

Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall, 1974

Bryan Ferry Albert Hall

My most powerful memory of Bryan Ferry’s debut as a solo artist at the Albert Hall, four and a half decades ago, is of a blonde woman sitting just along the row from me in the ringside seats. She was in her early thirties, I’d guess, tanned and expensively dressed and coiffed; she’d arrived by herself, carrying a bouquet of flowers. After each song, she rose to her feet and shouted “Bravo!” several times, as if we were at the Royal Opera House. I think she might have been German, possibly Austrian or Swiss. At the end of the encore she reached under her seat to retrieve the bouquet, which she hurled towards the stage. It seemed a clear sign that Ferry had made a decisive move away from the college and club circuit on which Roxy Music had made their reputation, and had acquired a new audience in the process.

Now a recording of one of the concerts Ferry gave over three consecutive nights at the Albert Hall in December 1974 has finally been released, and it fully captures the sense of occasion. Barely two years after Roxy’s debut album had made them the object of mingled wonder and scorn, their singer now had two solo albums behind him and was confident enough to present himself alone in the spotlight in the country’s most famous concert hall.

Musically, it was a lavish production: John Porter and Phil Manzanera on guitars, Eddie Jobson on piano and violin, John Wetton on bass, Paul Thompson on drums, plus three female backing singers (one of them Vicki Brown, formerly of the Vernons Girls and the Breakaways), and a large orchestra, conducted by Martyn Ford, including Chris Mercer and Ronnie Ross on saxophones, Martin Drover on trumpet and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone. It sounded big at the time, and I’d guess not much 21st-century post-production was needed to make it sound impressive today.

The repertoire is mostly drawn from those two solo albums, from the arch teenage pop of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” via the howling rock and roll of “Sympathy for the Devil”, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to the grown-up cocktail-hour balladry of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “These Foolish Things”. There are a couple of originals: “Another Time, Another Place” and “A Really Good Time”.

For me, the biggest successes are Ferry’s daring covers of two of my all-time favourite records: the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”. You tamper with the masterpieces of Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson (and their co-writers) at your peril, but Ferry treated them with affection, respect and imagination. I remember being in AIR Studios on Oxford Street during the sessions for These Foolish Things — the first solo album — and listening to a playback of “Don’t Worry Baby”, during which I was particularly struck by the guitar solo, played by Porter. Ah yes, Ferry said — he’d told his old Newcastle University friend to start the solo at the bottom of the lowest string and finish, eight bars later, at the top of the highest. It was a perfect example of the application of art-school thinking to pop music. The Miracles song is rendered beautifully, with one minor niggle: I wish he’d sung “You’re the permanent one” — the way Smokey did — rather than “You’re the only one”, as subsequent interpreters (including Gladys Knight) have done.

Maybe the most successful piece of all is “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a Top 20 hit for Ferry earlier in 1974, in which he gives Dobie Gray’s Mod-era anthem a thorough update: those implacable opening electric-piano chords, the screeching, chopping guitars of Porter and Manzanera, the double-beating thunder of Wetton and Thompson, and a vocal speaking directly to party people from Bigg Market to Saint-Tropez. As the song ends and the applause erupts, I’m almost sure I can detect a German-accented shout of “Bravo!”

* The photograph of Bryan Ferry, © Michael Putland, is from the jacket of Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974, released by BMG.

Andy Gill 1956-2020

Take an ounce of Wilko Johnson, a teaspoon of Sonny Sharrock, an echo of Robert Fripp’s solo on “A Sailor’s Tale”, marinate those ingredients in a powerful sense of political disenchantment, and you had Andy Gill, whose splintered electric guitar chords were the defining sound of Gang of Four, one of the most creative — and ultimately influential — bands of the late ’70s. Gill died on February 1 at the age of 64, and it was interesting to read so many tributes by people whose lives had been touched by his music. Among the most eloquent of those commentators, not surprisingly, were Jon Pareles in the New York Times and Simon Reynolds, who wrote about him for Pitchfork: “Remembering Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Who Ripped Punk to Shreds”. I saw the band at the Electric Ballroom in 1979, and they left a powerful impression. To tell the truth, though, it had been a long time since I played one of their records. But listening again to “At Home He’s a Tourist” brought an immediate reminder of how fresh and smart they sounded back then, at a time when they, the Pop Group, Talking Heads and Television made it seem as though there might be a future for rock music.

The Henrys’ ‘Paydirt’

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It’s my theory that Meghan and Harry haven’t fled the UK for Canada to get away from the red-tops. I think it’s because they know that the Henrys and the Weather Station have new albums out this year, and they’ll get more chances to see these great Canadian musicians playing gigs in actual Canada.

I don’t know when Tamara Lindeman intends to put out the new Weather Station album, but the Henrys released theirs this week. It’s their sixth, it’s called Paydirt, and it’s another one guaranteed to delight those who’ve acquired a taste for the understated, beautifully shaped music of the band led by the guitarist Don Rooke, who is probably best known outside his homeland as a key contributor to Mary Margaret O’Hara’s small but bejewelled discography.

When Rooke visited the UK before Christmas, we took a train journey to Nottingham together, during which I asked him which, out of all his collection of guitars, was the one he’d be most reluctant to lose. Unsurprisingly he nominated his original Weissenborn, a soft-shouldered Hawaiian lap steel made in Los Angeles before the second world war. Don plays all sorts of guitars, but the mellow, unhurried twang of this one makes it the best-suited to his particular form of self-expression .

Unlike its predecessors, Paydirt is not available on CD. Sixteen tracks can be downloaded, 11 of which are also available on a vinyl disc. Whichever you choose, you’ll get a quietly eventful ramble through a landscape in which folk, country and blues meet and mingle, the conversation varying in stylistic emphasis but held together by a firm sense of collective understanding. To apply familiar terms like “backwoods” or “backporch” would not be entirely inappropriate, although it would probably overemphasise the bucolic nature of music that feels no need to advertise its sophistication.

Alongside Rooke are Davide DiRenzo on drums, Joseph Phillips on acoustic bass, John Dymond and Paul Pasmore on bass guitars, Jonathan Goldsmith on piano and pump organ, Joey Wright on guitar and mandocello, John Sheard on organ and pump organ and Hugh Marsh on violin. That sounds like a lot of musicians, but they share the work around and the sound is always spare and intimate. There are no guest singers this time, but every track sounds like a song.

The tunes are all Rooke’s. You might feel as though you’ve known them your entire life. You haven’t. If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be “Ruby I Realize”, a relaxed shuffle in which the infiltration of Sheard’s light-fingered organ makes them sound like a chilled-out Booker T and the MGs, in the best possible way. Or the hymn-like dignity of “Stolen Border”. Or the blithe, skipping tune of “Bounty Jumpers”. Or the yearning lyricism of “It Was Old But We Knew”. Or the dobro and pump organ of “The Church Picnic”. Or the lightly funky second-line rhythm of “His Weakness Was Slender Arms”. Like just about every note I’ve ever heard from this source, Paydirt is highly recommended.

* Paydirt can be acquired via Bandcamp: https://thehenrys.bandcamp.com/album/paydirt

Me, me, me

Elton John

Big disappointment, that Elton John. I’d been expecting his autobiography, Me, to contain a chapter gratefully acknowledging all the people who wrote about him with warmth and enthusiasm in the British music weeklies at a time when he couldn’t get arrested on Denmark Street. I’m thinking of Penny Valentine, Lon Goddard, Caroline Boucher. And, yes… me.

How soon, how completely, they forget.

For the benefit of readers who don’t get British irony: I’m joking. To an extent, anyway. But I interviewed him several times in 1970, his annus mirabilis; the first occasion, on April 7, seems notable in retrospect because he actually made his way by himself to the Melody Maker office on Fleet Street in order to be interviewed. He was that obscure. He was also a nice chap: quiet, seemingly modest and happy to talk about the music he loved, particularly the Band and Robbie Robertson. Later in the summer I bumped into him backstage at a rock festival — it might have been the one in early August at Plumpton racecourse — and after we’d said hello I asked him how things were going. I’ve never forgotten the substance of his reply.

Well, he said, he’d been giving it some thought and he’d decided to make his act more dramatic, more extrovert, more theatrical. More like the Jagger with the Stones, maybe. You know, get some costumes, leap about a bit more. He liked that kind of thing.

I was a bit flabbergasted. I looked at him. He was wearing his usual gear, something completely unobtrusive in that dressed-down environment, maybe jeans and some sort of brown jacket. I might even have said, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” But he was insistent. Heigh ho, I thought. Fair enough, if that’s really what he wants. But it seemed a bit of a shame. It wasn’t really the way the world was going.

Two years later he was at the Hollywood Bowl in an outfit covered in white marabou feathers, taking a stage occupied by five grand pianos whose lids flew open to release dozens of white doves, with an audience going wild. So there we are.

I never saw any of the tours where his love of flamboyance was on full display. In fact the two best Elton John gigs I ever attended were memorable for everything except his own performance. The first of them is something else that doesn’t get a mention in Me.

It was on October 30, 1970 at the Revolution Club in Bruton Place, just off Berkeley Square — a Mayfair alternative to the Speakeasy as a late-night hangout for rock musicians on the way up, and also sometimes a place where record companies put on showcase gigs. This night was a double showcase. Elton and his band — Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — had just returned from their breakthrough in the US, where every star in Hollywood had turned up to see them at the Troubadour. (“Dylan Digs Elton!” was the front-page headline in the Melody Maker — a Ray Coleman special.) They were about to go back the next day, but their record label wanted the British media to see them in their new, confident flowering.

The evening was shared with Randy Newman, brought over by Warner Brothers to promote his second album, the great 12 Songs. By that time I was a lot more interested in Randy Newman than Elton John, so I turned up in a mood of great anticipation. By the time Randy came on the drinks had been flowing for a while and the assembled company — all embroidered denim, satin loon pants and Anello & Davide snakeskin boots — had been tucking into the free canapés. The waitresses were dashing round filling glasses and taking orders. Seated at ringside tables, the audience chattered away.

Randy sidled on to the stage and sat down. He gave no sign of being impressed by the significance of the occasion. He had his owlish glasses on, and his pursed expression, and he seemed to be in the clothes he’d worn on the flight over from LA. He started into his first song without ceremony, and then did another one. I’m pretty sure they were “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Lover’s Prayer”. They were wonderful. He hadn’t said a word. But the conversations were still going on, and the waitresses were still circulating busily.

Still without a word, he changed the mood, going back to his first album for “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a song of despair for the human condition. First verse: quiet, intense, spellbinding if you happened to be listening. Still the ringside noise went on. Second verse: “Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles chase love away…” And he lifted his hands from the keyboard, paused for a couple of seconds, very quietly said, “That’s all, folks,” and got up and walked off. Most of the audience barely noticed his departure.

I’ve never admired Randy Newman as much as I did that night. For me, it was a perfectly judged reaction to the environment in which he found himself. Extraordinarily brave, too, in the circumstances. That’s not how a new artist with a major record company behind him is expected to behave when they’ve been flown 5,000 miles for a showcase gig. A little while later Elton and his band were rocking out, getting an ovation from people keen not to be missing out on what looked like being the latest sensation.

Elton owns up to the second memorable gig, at Wembley Stadium on June 21, 1975, a night when he topped the bill but might as well not have turned up at all. On that glorious midsummer’s afternoon the Beach Boys grabbed the sunshine and simply wiped out the headliner. It became a music-business legend how, after their exhilarating surf-ride from one hit to another, Elton’s attempt to present the unfamiliar songs from the brand-new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy turned into a catastrophe. Almost from the start the audience were making for the exits like thousands of iron filings drawn by powerful magnets.

Maybe it was a kind of widescreen karmic revenge for the time at the Albert Hall, five years earlier, when he’d done to Sandy Denny and Fotheringay what the Beach Boys did to him. That’s something else he owns up to in Me, which is so expertly ghostwritten by Alexis Petridis, the Guardian‘s chief rock critic, that the reader never pauses to consider that the vividly remembered anecdotes, so amusingly drenched in self-mockery, aren’t coming directly from the man whose name is on the cover.

You’ve probably read the extracts and the reviews, which concentrate — understandably enough — on the vast quantities of coke and sex and some of the dafter things that can happen to a chubby boy from Pinner, like dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” with the Queen of England and having an epic row with Tina Turner. It’s a cracking read on that level alone. But in the final chapters you’ll find a lot of very moving stuff about less exotic subjects: doing the school run, getting treated for cancer, that kind of thing.

I wanted more detail about what was discovered when he subjected his dealings with his longest-serving manager to an independent audit in 1998. I also think it would have been a graceful gesture to have identified the local-paper journalist who tipped him off in 1974 that Watford FC could do with his help, since it led to a period of great personal happiness. And I wish he’d said a bit more about the music, and the musicians who worked with him along the way and never became famous. But that’s just me.

* Me is published by Macmillan.

Steve Howe’s ‘New Frontier’

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I hadn’t heard any of the Steve Howe Trio’s previous albums, so New Frontier, their third release, came as a pleasant surprise. I knew of Steve as the guitarist who took over from Peter Banks in Yes — a band in which my interest diminished as their songs got longer — in 1970, and I knew the trio’s drummer, Dylan Howe, who is Steve’s son and whose album of instrumental versions of David Bowie’s Berlin compositions, Subterranean, I liked a lot on its release five years ago.

The trio is completed by Ross Stanley, a fine keyboards player who is heard here on organ. Guitar-organ-drums trios were a thing in the ’60s: Jimmy Smith, Baby Face Willette, John Patton, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Larry Young were among the organists who made that line-up a favourite format. The guitarist on such albums was often Grant Green, and it’s interesting to discover that a prog-rock guitarist can absorb Green’s spare, bluesy style into his own approach, as he does here on several tracks. There are hints of Wes Montgomery, too, in the occasional burst of octave picking (and Montgomery led a fine organ trio of his own on a couple of Riverside albums).

The result isn’t as heavy and bluesy as some of that music. Stanley doesn’t go for the full Leslie-speaker throb and stays away from the bass pedals, so there’s an airness about the sound, while Dylan Howe has a light, deft touch. Steve Howe varies his tone and effects pleasantly without overdoing it, and uses an acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks. All three contribute compositions, as does Bill Bruford, another former Yes man and Dylan Howe’s one-time drum tutor. Sometimes it’s a little bit like early-’70s Santana without the percussion, or Danny Gatton without the absolute authority. But it’s an extremely nice album, and occasionally — as on the lyrical “Western Sun”, co-written by both Howes — rather more than that.

* The Steve Howe Trio’s New Frontier is out now on the Esoteric Antenna label.

Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Hornsey Road’

Abbey Road

When the Guardian ran my interview with Mark Lewisohn about his Abbey Road stage show last week, the piece got 800,000 page views in 24 hours: more than that day’s Brexit coverage, they said. I don’t know what this means, except that the Beatles are still pretty popular. More popular than Brexit, anyway.

Mark had a lot of interesting things to say. What I didn’t have room to discuss in the piece was the use made in the show — which is actually titled Hornsey Road — of the original multitrack tapes, downloadable (astonishing as it may seem) from the video game called Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009. This allows anyone with the necessary equipment to make their own remixes: a dangerous opportunity, but one that Mark has used with care and sensitivity to form part of his two-hour show, which had its first night in Northampton this week and is touring around the country until early December.

I went to a run-through last week, and learnt a lot from his remixes of the original eight-tracks from Olympic, Trident and EMI’s Abbey Road studios between February and August 1969. He brought out a single bar of absolutely sublime McCartney bass-playing on “Because” that I’d never noticed before, ditto the cowbell on “Polythene Pam”. Thanks to him, I was paying closer attention and therefore better able to enjoy the sequence of guitar solos from McCartney, Harrison and Lennon on “The End”: two bars each, then repeat twice. Eighteen quite revealing bars — particularly Lennon’s — in a track that was the last thing they recorded together.

Revisiting Abbey Road was funny for me because it was 50 years ago to the week — on September 10, 1969, in fact — that I’d tipped up at the ICA in the Mall for a screening of several films by John & Yoko, including Two Virgins and Rape. It was a long and gruelling evening, during which an unidentified male and female in a white canvas bag led us all in a chant of “Hare Krishna” that lasted the entire 52 minutes of Yoko’s Film No 5. Was it the Lennons inside the bag? At first we assumed it was. Then we thought, almost certainly not. But it was Bag-ism in action, for sure.

The unexpected treat was a preview of Abbey Road, a couple of weeks ahead of its release. Side one was played in the interval, followed by side two as an accompaniment to John’s film Self Portrait, a 20-minute study of his penis rising and falling. By the time the evening ended, only a handful of the invited audience remained in the theatre.

It was a time when the Beatles — and the Lennons in particular — were in the headlines almost every day. Fleet Street was obsessed with their relationships, their business affairs, their eccentricities. It was also a time when Lennon was happy to sit and talk in the Beatles’ room at Apple HQ at 3 Savile Row, as he did a couple of days later. The following day he was in Toronto for the Live Peace Festival, with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White. On the Monday morning he called me up at the Melody Maker offices to give me the story, and specifically to deny the reports that he and Yoko had been booed off.

“That’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “It was a fantastic show — really unbelievable. It was magical. The band was so funky and we really blew some minds. We only had time to rehearse on the plane going over, and we did things like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy [Miss Lizzy]’, and a new song I’d never played before.” That would have been “Cold Turkey”, which the Beatles were about to turn down as their next single. “Then Yoko joined us,” he continued, “and sang one number [“Don’t Worry Kyoko”] before doing things like our Life with the Lions album. It was incredible because the crowd was howling along with us and they all joined in for ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Everyone was singing — it was like a great big mantra.”

My impression of Lewisohn’s show was that Hornsey Road tells the story in rewarding detail and with a nicely judged sense of how wonderfully absurd the events surrounding the Beatles sometimes were, half a century ago.

* The photograph of the Beatles was taken on the Thames at Twickenham on April 9, 1969 and is from the booklet accompanying the 2009 remastered version of Abbey Road. It is © Apple Corps Ltd.

Punkt 2019

Punkt poster

Kristiansand’s Punkt festival was the brainchild of Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, who had the idea of setting up an annual event featuring instant remixes of every performance. The first edition was held in 2005, and last weekend they celebrated their 15th anniversary with three days of music in the festival’s home, a port on the southern coast of Norway, where the faculty of the university includes Bang as professor of electronic music, with Honoré in a less formal role.

This year Punkt’s group of designated remixers also included the trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvær, the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, the producer Helge Sten and the duo of the drummer Pål Hausken and the keyboardist Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim, who called themselves Elektroshop. At each concert one or two of them could be seen onstage seated at their laptops behind or alongside the performers, who included Trondheim Voices in the Domkirken, the city’s cathedral; Thurston Moore’s four-piece band in a club called Kick Scene; and Kim Myhr’s septet and Rymden, the new trio featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, in the Kilden concert hall on the waterfront.

Immediately after each set the designated remixers would play a set of their own, based on the material they had just recorded. Sometimes they added live instruments: Henriksen’s trumpet and voice, Molvær’s trumpet, Aarset’s guitar, Hausken’s tom-toms and, on one occasion, the voice of Sidsel Endresen. If it wasn’t often easy to detect the salient characteristics of the original material in the remixes, that didn’t seem to matter much.

My favourite example came when Henriksen, Sten and Storløkken — who comprise the long established trio Supersilent — took the thunderous, heavily strummed, highly structured, ecstatic instrumental music created by Moore’s group — with the leader and James Sedwards on electric 12-strings, Deb Googe on six-string bass guitar and Jeb Doulton on drums — and reshaped it into blocks of even more thunderous but harshly fractured noise. During both sets, it was fun to stand behind the conventional mixing desk and watch the decibel meters climbing: peaking above 120dB and inching past an average of 100+. Those who chose to wear earplugs, I felt, lost out on something worthwhile.

Punkt Kim 1

Twenty four hours later, Kim Myhr’s band (above) offered a very different kind of strummed ecstasy while reinterpreting the two long compositions from his 2018 album YOU | ME. Whereas Moore built his chordal symphony on a highly disciplined rock-based, backbeat-driven vision, its transitions strictly defined, Myhr summoned the looser weave of folk music. Just as propulsive but lighter in tone and more subtly textured, the music had a life generated less by the structure of the composition than by the sensation of the individual instruments — the electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars of Myhr, David Stackenäs, Daniel Meyer Grønvold and Adrian Myhr, and the drums and percussion of Tony Buck, Ingar Zach and Michaela Antalová — rubbing up against each other. As far as I was concerned the stretchy 9/4 chordal riff of the second half could have gone on all night, its jangling strings and tinkling bells creating a narcotic momentum and going far beyond the recorded version.

For me, the other big highlights of the weekend were provided by Dark Star Safari, a Nordic-noir prog-rock quartet,  in the Sorlandet art museum and by Trondheim Voices in the cathedral. The concert debut of the former, consisting of Bang (transformed into a lead singer), Aarset, Honoré and the brilliant Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer, was striking enough to send me back to re-investigate their album, released earlier this year.

New ideas on the capacity of the human voice were provided by the nine women of Trondheim Voices, singing “Folklore”, an hour-long composition by Sten and Storløkken (who had prefaced the performance with an extended solo on the pipe organ). Microtonal clusters slid and swerved to thrilling effect and Natali Abrahamson Garner, the latest recruit to this extraordinary group, emerged from the ensemble with a solo passage making staggering use of glottal manipulation. For 40 minutes or so they achieved a transcendent beauty until one of the nine, feeling ill, had to remove herself, requiring the others to react quickly. There were no audible glitches, and they were back at full strength for the closing sequence, but the on-the-fly adustments inevitably disrupted the narrative tension. The release of “Folklore” on the Hubro label later this year will offer a better chance to assess what is obviously a remarkable piece.

Not everything in the weekend worked perfectly. Dai Fujikura’s Symphony for Shamisen and Orchestra, performed by Hidejiro Honjoh and the Kristiansand SO, suffered from an inherent dynamic imbalance between solo instrument and orchestra, I wasn’t moved by the duo of the guitarist Steve Tibbetts and the percussionist Mark Anderson, Rymden had little new to offer, and a set by the Ensemble Modern demonstrated that while classical musicians are better at improvising than they used to be, the demands of free improvisation are better left to specialists. But Punkt is an opportunity to examine various directions in which music is heading and to enjoy the results in sympathetic surroundings. Its ambitions — summed up in Bang’s motto: “If you have some information that is useful, spread it” — have led to projects in more than two dozen other cities around the world, including Shanghai and Montreal, and there will be a three-day Birmingham Punkt Festival, featuring Norwegian and British musicians, next March.

Bang and Honoré, who are both in their early fifties, have worked together since they were teenagers, nurtured by a music-education system that prioritises open-mindedness and in turn passing on the results of their own experiences to an emerging new generation. They can also be very funny. As Bang spoke of their collaboration, he mentioned that in all the years of programming Punkt they have never had an argument. “I’ve been arguing all the time,” Honoré responded. “You just didn’t notice.”

California dreams

 

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There was no law preventing Bruce Springsteen from making a California-themed album, and Western Stars seems to have received a generally warm reception for its ballads of longing and regret, laden with strings, banjos and steel guitars. For myself, I find it a little bit soupy in texture, predictable in content and lacking in energy. I’ll probably be listening to “Moonlight Motel”, “There Goes My Miracle” and the title track occasionally in the future, but to these ears it’s his least distinguished work since the Human Touch / Lucky Town dual release in 1992, and far behind other non-E Street Band solo albums such as Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Its arrival did have one unexpected benefit. While pondering the list of artists and songwriters that he presented as having provided direct inspiration for the project, I pulled out a couple of albums recorded in Los Angeles half a century ago by the singer Johnny Rivers, mostly because the first of them — Rewind (1967) — includes several songs by Jimmy Webb, one of the names Springsteen mentioned. The second album — Realization (1968) — has no Webb songs, but it does have a feeling of continuity with its predecessor.

Born John Ramistella in the Bronx in 1942, Rivers might easily have become one of those Italian American pop singers who found fame in the early ’60s: a rival to Dion DiMucci, John Mastrangelo (Johnny Maestro), and Francesco Castelluccio (Frankie Valli). Instead he moved with his parents to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a child, absorbing the local R&B and rock and roll sounds as he grew up and became a guitarist. Having changed his name at the behest of Alan Freed, he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, working as a songwriter before Lou Adler had the brainwave of recording his nightclub act at the Whisky à Go Go, where his repertoire — with a stripped-down trio completed by Joe Osborn’s bass and Eddie Rubin’s drums — included songs like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, both of which became hit singles for him.

Rivers was a good songwriter (“Poor Side of Town”, his self-penned 1966 hit, is a beauty) but a better interpreter; whatever the material, he retained a kind of plaintive honesty. Rebirth and Realization show him grappling with a broader range of material, from Motown songs (“Baby I Need Your Lovin'”, “The Tracks of My Tears”) to Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You”, as well as demanding Webb songs such as “Rosecrans Blvd” and “Sidewalk Song (27th Street)”. With arrangements by Webb and Marty Paich and great playing from the Wrecking Crew, the two albums form a fine snapshot of an artist getting to grips with material from songwriters exploring the new ways of living, thinking and behaving.

Out of the two albums, I selected four tracks to create what I think of as a perfect summer EP. The first is Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do”; there will be those who prefer the later readings of this sublime song by the Four Tops, Nina Simone or even Roberta Flack, but I like this one for its conversational understatement. The second is “Positively 4th Street”, which Dylan names in Chronicles Vol 1 as his favourite cover of one of his songs, perhaps because Rivers took a gentler approach to the song’s bitter invective than the man who wrote it. The third is “Summer Rain”, a great piece of orchestral folk-rock written by James Hendricks, a former Mugwump (with Mama Cass, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) and a regular collaborator with Rivers. The fourth is Rivers’ own “The Way We Live”, in which he takes the sound and cadences of “Positively 4th Street” — particularly Larry Knechtel’s Al Kooperish B3 — and applies it to his own thoughtful meditation on life in America as the decade turns sour.

I suppose I can see what Springsteen was getting at when he namechecked Webb, particularly if he was thinking of the hits the songwriter provided for Glen Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, with their powerful sense of geographical and emotional distance. (It was Rivers, as it happens, who took “Phoenix” to Campbell, having recorded the first version of it on an album already overloaded with hit singles.) More so, anyway, that Burt Bacharach, also on Springsteen’s list, whose chromatic melodies, sophisticated harmonies and games with metre are about as far from Bruce’s basic bluecollar style as you could get within the same general idiom.

I’m going to give Western Stars a few more spins in the coming days, but at the moment those four Rivers tracks are the ones I can’t get out of my head. And I’ll be thinking of the night in London in the spring of 1973 when he turned up at the Valbonne, a Mayfair discothèque, to promote his latest album by playing an early-evening showcase set with an A Team line-up consisting of Chuck Findley on trumpet, Jim Horn on saxophones, Dean Parks and Herb Pedersen on guitars, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Jack Conrad on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Few of us who were there will forget a storming show that, of its kind, rivalled Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow the following month and wouldn’t be bettered until Springsteen turned up at Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band two years later — which is saying something, for all concerned.